Said to be the personal favorite of all his movies (although similar claims have been made with regards to How Green Was My Valley and The Quiet Man) John Ford’s The Sun Shines Bright (1952) is something of an oddity in the director’s career – his one unabashedly sentimental movie without a single star in its headline and in which the comedic elements in Laurence Stallings and Irvin S. Cobb’s screenplay all but take precedence over Ford’s usually more finely wrought attention to melodrama. To be sure there is plenty of both in The Sun Shines Bright; derived from three short stories by Cobb, ‘The Sun Shines Bright’, ‘The Mob from Massac’ and ‘The Lord Provides’ whose beloved central character Judge William ‘Billy’ Priest is the common thread and who had already been immortalized by Ford with Will Rogers in 20th Century-Fox’s 1934 comedy Judge Priest. The grand old man of no-nonsense social commentary, Will Rogers had given something of an iconic performance as the altruistic magistrate who enjoyed a nip or two for medicinal purposes almost as much as he relished presiding over the inhabitance of his small Kentucky home town.
It’s a decidedly different Judge Priest we meet in The Sun Shines Bright; older, more introspective and remotely sadder than we recall – the years having refined what others might perceive as the character’s mere charm and obvious largesse into a vaguely more meaningful philosophy on life. Just exactly what this might be is left to our speculation – mostly - and to Charles Winninger’s evocative expressions that manage to convey so much more than any dialogue. With a decade’s worth of movie classics under his belt – many more heartfelt than humorous – Ford seems to have recognized the fundamentals of Judge Priest on more poignant terms in The Sun Shines Bright; the aged Winninger taking up the mantel with his own inimitable brand of homespun good sense.
Our story begins in the small riverside town of Fairfield County, Kentucky with the rude awakening of Judge Priest (Winninger) from his peaceful slumber, stirred by the piercing sound of a riverboat steamer whistle. Oh no…not again – he’s late for court! Calling for his hired hand, Jeff Poindexter (Stepin Fetchit) to reach under his bed for a medicinal drop of moonshine, the Judge hurries himself along. But his attentions are momentarily diverted by the unexpected return of the town’s profligate young stud, Ashby Corwin (John Russell) who wastes no time visiting his old haunts – particularly one Lucy Lee Lake (Arleen Whelan) whose adopted father is the town’s doctor, Lewt (Russell Simpson). The good doctor is hardly pleased to see Ashby, but Lucy Lee is decidedly ecstatic; playing her cards close to her chest, but rather put off when Ashby laughs at her for having become a school teacher in the poor black community.
In the meantime, Judge Priest presides over his court, slightly distracted by the moral pontificating of prosecutor Horace K. Maydew (Milburn Stone) who is gunning for his job during this pending election year. The judge is dissuaded by Maydew from hearing a case regarding Mallie Cramp (Eve March) who runs a house of ill repute, but is encouraged to take stock of Uncle Plez’ Woodford’s (Ernest Whitman) concern over his nephew, You Ess Grant Woodford (Elzie Emanuel) whom he perceives to be frittering away the hours on his banjo without any vocation to sustain himself. To this end, Judge Priest hears Grant play a spirited rendition of ‘Dixie’ before recommending him for a job, working the tobacco fields in the Tornado District.
Later that evening the judge attends General Fairfield (James Kirkwood) in the lavishly appointed study of his grand old southern mansion. Fairfield regards Priest warmly but staunchly refuses to admit that Lucy Lee is his granddaughter. Regrettably, the girl has had a hard time of dealing with her own illegitimacy. Many of the town’s folk are more than just unsympathetic. They’re downright cruel in their admonishments and taunting; particularly blowhard Buck Ransey (Grant Withers) and his liquored up entourage. Knowing too well what it’s like to be the ‘black sheep’ of his family, Ashby comes to Lucy Lee’s defense, challenging Buck to a shirtless buggy-whipping that only ends when Judge Priest intrudes to separate them. Not long thereafter a mysterious woman (Dorothy Jordan) departs the steamer late at night; ill and weak, before collapsing in the street. She is rescued by Ashby who carries her to Dr. Lake’s house for treatment. But her illness – whatever it may be – is too far advanced. After uncontrollably sobbing she reveals her dying wish; to see her daughter, Lucy Lee one last time, Lucy appears in the doorway without knowing that the mystery woman is, in fact, her mother. The woman smiles and dies contently. Lucy hurries to Judge Priest’s home where she questions him about her origins before glimpsing the truth in a portrait of her father and a woman whom she closely resembles and now is able to identify as the mysterious woman in Dr. Lake’s parlor.
The narrative shifts to Grant, having been arrested for the rape of a white girl. Priest has the terrorized young man placed inside the local county lockup, a lynch mob led by Ransey and the girl's father, Rufe Ramseur (Trevor Bardette) soon appearing to claim Grant and spare the community the prospects of a lengthy trial. Disbelieving the evidence against Grant outright, Priest attempts to reason with the angry mob before drawing his gun and ordering the crowd to disperse. Ransey challenges Priest’s authority and is given a final warning by the judge at gunpoint; that he will be shot dead if he comes any closer. Begrudgingly, Ransey throws down his ropes and storms off, but Rufe warns Priest that his actions will cost him plenty on Election Day.
Aging German shop keep, Herman Felsburg (Ludwig Stossel) sadly insists that the judge and his appointed council will surely be turned out of office. Popular opinion does, in fact, seem to be turning against Priest; particularly after Mallie Cramp is seen leaving his home. Mallie is determined to give Lucy's late mother an honorable burial. The next evening Lucy arrives at a cadet’s ball on Ashby’s arm. They share a dance. But once again insecurity overtakes Lucy and she asks to be driven home. Ransey attempts to have words with Ashby. But just then Rufe’s raped daughter (Mini Doyle) appears, clearly identifying Ransey as her attacker. Ransey attempts to flee the scene in Lucy’s carriage but is shot by an elderly soldier and dies; the runaway carriage subdued by Ashby.
The next day Judge Priest joins Mallie and her friends in the funeral procession for Lucy’s mother. The town’s folk - all of whom have come to cast their ballots in the election - are shocked by this public display, though a few, like Ashby and Herman join in the cortege. Maydew is pleased, sensing that with Priest’s popularity ebbing he will slide into office without much of a struggle. As the funeral cortege passes the General’s plantation, Fairfield quietly emerges from his home to pay his respects. Later, he will join Lucy at the church where Priest continues to speak lovingly of Lucy’s mother and the sacrifices she made to bring her child into the world.
Returning to the center of town Priest discovers that Maydew leads him in the polls by almost one hundred votes. But Priest will not concede the election until after the Tornado District has cast their ballots. Rufe and his men arrive; warmly shaking Maydew’s hand before entering the polling station. However, when they emerge after casting their ballots it is revealed that virtually every one of them has voted for Judge Priest. As night falls a victory procession passes in front of Judge Priest’s home as he tearfully greets one and all, with Lucy and Ashby reunited and looking on.
For the most part The Sun Shines Bright is a quiet gem of a movie; understated and eloquently played – albeit with a few minor misfires along the way. Most painful of all are the black stereotypes, relying heavily on the cliché of the simple-minded ‘darkie’ – particularly Stepin Fetchit’s Jeff; a mindless, low functioning and lazy loafer with a questionable work ethic and the I.Q. of a three year old; ditto for Ernest Whitman and Elzie Emanuel’s characterizations, little more than wide-eyed caricatures of the happy Negro. Ford has some trouble transitioning between the three individual narratives that comprise the movie’s story. Rather than integrating all three into one cohesive timeline we are given an episodic succession; one told after the other. It’s not the best way to build dramatic tension and/or pathos, and, Ford seems awkward in attempting dramatic arcs. The other hurdle not entirely resolved is the film’s lack of powerful star presences to pull the story along. Charles Winninger is a fine actor and readily calls out our respect for his considerable talents.
But he is surrounded by others not quite up to his caliber, many of whom regress into the backdrop of our collective memory whenever they have walked off the screen. The worst of these are Grant Withers’ Buck Ransey and John Russell’s Ashby Corwin; the former little more than a cardboard cutout who achieves nothing except his comeuppance in the third act, the latter handsome enough but much too wooden to be appreciated as the film’s would-be romantic suitor. Arleen Whelan’s Lucy Lee and James Kirkwood’s Gen. Fairfield are window dressing at best – depriving us of their bittersweet reunion during Lucy’s mother’s funeral.
Despite these misfires, The Sun Shines Bright has some very solid writing to recommend it; some finely plotted situations interspersed, and, some fairly consistent acting applied throughout. If the actors don’t stand out, neither are they ‘bad actors’ or misguided in their approach to the characters. I can respect a good no-name giving it his or her all, even if their presence lacks the defining quality of a star to make them live on in my memory. In the final analysis, The Sun Shines Bright feeds into that tender and often poignant slice of Americana John Ford so obviously adored and excelled at rekindling for the modern generation. It isn’t Ford’s best work – not by a long shot - or, quite possibly, even representative of his second tier, but it works on some level as a mostly satisfying entertainment despite its shortcomings.
Olive Film’s Blu-ray is fairly impressive. The original elements must have been in exceptionally good shape because what we have here is a finely detailed B&W image with exceptional clarity, a fine smattering of realistic film grain, very solid contrast levels and sharpness that never appears to have been digitally enhanced. I’m not a fan of Olive giving us single-layered transfers, but this one I really cannot fault. The image looks about as good as I could have imagined, albeit with a few obvious age-related anomalies that have not been cleaned up and are present throughout. Otherwise, I have no complaints about what I’m seeing. It looks very film-like. The audio is mono and presented at an adequate level, although occasionally I found dialogue being slightly overpowered by other effects sounds in the track and a slight case of background hiss. Regrettably, there are NO extras.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)